What is weight stigma?
According to a recent article, weight stigma is the social rejection and devaluation that accrues to persons who do not conform to existing social norms of optimal body weight and shape. Simply put, weight stigma is prejudice based on a person’s bodily weight.
According to many researchers, weight stigma can cause changes in the body, such as higher cortisol levels, which can contribute to poor metabolic health and weight growth. Furthermore, persons who are overweight may cope with weight stigma by increasing alcohol and substance usage, overeating to cope with negative feelings, and avoiding healthcare settings or social engagements.
The consequent unfavorable health outcomes are a result of what is known as chronic social stress, and studies have found that weight discrimination increases the chance of death by 60%, even when body mass index (BMI) is adjusted for.
What is internalized weight stigma?
Internalized weight stigma occurs when a person internalizes negative societal or cultural views regarding body weight. These views are based on social norms, which are unwritten standards governing behavior.
Internalized weight stigma is a sort of weight bias known as “fatphobia” by some. It is available to people of all shapes and sizes. According to a 2020 report, people with this bias frequently view themselves as being overweight, regardless of their actual physical size. Internalized weight stigma has a negative impact on body image and self-esteem and is a major public health concern. It appears to contribute to disordered eating, overeating, trouble maintaining a healthy weight, sadness, and anxiety as well as mortality.
The assumption that some weights or body sizes are more desirable or valued than others is known as weight bias. This bias appears in many cultures, but not all.
Individuals who are overweight may assume that those with larger bodies are:
ugly, lazy, undisciplined, selfish, and less clever people are to blame for whatever health problems they have, and they are less deserving of success or love.
When this bias manifests itself in action, it is referred to as stigma. Any acts, statements, or regulations that discriminate against persons based on their actual or perceived body weight are considered weight stigma. It might be deliberate or unintended.
Weight stigma in society can be seen in the following examples:
- Weight-based bullying, as well as unpleasant comments from family or friends
- negative media perceptions
- employment discrimination
When a person begins to apply weight stigma to themselves, this is referred to as internalized weight stigma. They adopt the beliefs of others and use them to guide their conduct and decisions.
Internalized weight stigma examples:
Internalized weight stigma can present itself in a variety of ways. Someone who has learned this behavior may:
- have difficulty accepting compliments about their appearance and frequently criticize their body weight or size.
- avoid having their picture taken or looking in mirrors avoid being naked or have sex.
- cover their body when swimming, at the beach, or in changing rooms.
- reject down chances, such as dates or job interviews.
- owing to weight-related attitudes.
- feel unmotivated to exercise, especially if they believe they will not be able to lose weight.
- participate in yo-yo dieting, severe dieting, or fad diets in an attempt to rapidly modify their body size.
- punish oneself for not attaining their ideal weight or for consuming particular foods, for example, by fasting.
Who is affected by weight stigma?
Anybody, regardless of body weight, age, sex, gender, race, or ethnicity, can experience internalized weight stigma. Nonetheless, evidence indicates that some groups have greater internalized bias than others, such as:
- Individuals with a higher BMI: A 2020 study of 225 ethnically diverse women discovered a link between a higher BMI and higher levels of internalized weight bias. This shows that those who are heavier internalize bias to a greater extent.
- Women: A research of 2,378 different men and women published in 2017 discovered that, while rates of internalized weight bias were similar across racial groups, they were not the same across genders. Women were more likely than males to report higher levels of weight-bias internalization.
- Young people: According to the 2017 study, younger individuals exhibited more internalized weight bias than older participants. The researchers did not investigate why these disparities arise; however, it is likely that being subjected to more weight discrimination from others leads to more internalization.
Other prejudices, such as sexism and racism, may also have a role. For example, the authors of the 2017 study observe that prejudices about immigrants are similar to stereotypes about obesity in several aspects.
This could explain why, in the 2017 study, Hispanic women were more prone than white and Black women to cope with weight stigma through disordered eating, owing to what the researchers call “double danger.” Further research, however, is required to fully comprehend this. Fear of gaining weight even affects persons with lower body weight, as any amount of body fat may be considered dangerous. In the health and fitness business, weight bias is also prevalent.
A 2018 meta-analysis included 31 prior studies on weight prejudice in fitness and nutrition experts such as personal trainers, physical therapists, and nutritionists. The evaluation included papers from a variety of countries, including the United States.
Weight bias was detected in 85% of studies on exercise professionals, whereas 73% of studies were on nutritional specialists.
What steps may be taken to overcome weight stigma?
There are numerous approaches to addressing weight stigma. The first step is to recognize that it exists because we cannot combat anything until we first recognize it.
Another step we may take is to modify the way we think about and speak about people who are overweight. One key step in this direction is to eliminate the term “obesity” from our lexicon. When referring to someone who is overweight, we should remember that they are a person with an illness, and we should try to identify them as a person rather than the disease they have. For example, instead of “obese person,” use the phrase “person with obesity.” This is referred to as employing person-first language.
Taking on weight stigma in healthcare settings:
Weight stigma is especially prevalent in the health care setting, resulting in serious health repercussions for those who are overweight or obese. According to studies, physicians exhibit a strong anti-fat bias in healthcare settings. This bias leads to lower quality of care and is just another way that weight stigma contributes to poor health in those who are overweight or obese.
There are numerous strategies to address stigma in healthcare settings, just as there are in everyday life. Doctors should, of course, use the same guidelines outlined above in order to recognize the prevalence of weight stigma and seek to utilize person-first language in their speech and medical documentation.
Also, patients would benefit greatly from avoiding the traditional cookie-cutter recommendations to eat less and exercise more in order to reduce weight. This form of advice ignores the numerous environmental, genetic, and physiologic factors of obesity, instead blaming the patient as the sole cause and contributor to their obesity.
Clinicians should also be cautious not to instantly infer that an obese patient is participating in overeating behaviors and should believe their patients’ reports of dietary intake and physical activity. The clinical visit should be focused on acquiring information and understanding a patient’s specific circumstances. If the practitioner is not comfortable discussing or prescribing various treatment options, a referral to an obesity expert may be necessary.
What can individuals do to combat weight stigma?
Weight bias can influence people of any size, influencing how they see themselves and treat others. As a result, everyone has a role to play in putting an end to it.
A variety of interventions, such as: can help people unlearn negative weight biases that they may have internalized.
- Weight stigma is discrimination
There is no medical reason for weight stigma. It is a sort of discrimination based on bias rather than science. Individuals may find it beneficial to study more about this, as well as the ways in which weight stigma overlaps with other types of oppression, such as racism and sexism, in order to understand where these ideas originate.
- Increasing your knowledge of health
Weight is not the only determinant of health. Numerous things can influence it, including heredity, hormones, and neurotransmitters. Understanding about this may help people release some of the guilt or shame they feel about eating or exercising and refocus on holistically caring for their bodies.
According to a 2020 study on practicing self-compassion, self-compassion is related to improved mental and physical health, better body image, and decreased incidences of disordered eating. Self-compassion levels were lower among people who had experienced weight-based bullying. Self-compassion can be learned on one’s own, in a support group, or with the help of a therapist.
- Obtaining support
A group of peers that fight weight bias can boost a person’s confidence and make them feel understood.
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